Some writers step outside their comfort zones; in preparation for his latest middle-grade work, G. Neri catapulted out of his. In 2017, the award-winning author spent two months in Antarctica, where he walked on land untouched by humans, camped at the foot of a calving glacier, and earned the nickname the “Penguin Whisperer.” The book he wrote upon his return, My Antarctica: True Adventures in the Land of Mummified Seals, Space Robots, and So Much More (Candlewick, March 5), illustrated by Corban Wilkin, is an insightful and probing account of this unforgettable journey. “I don’t think there’s a day when I’m not touching Antarctica in some way,” he tells Kirkus via Zoom from his home in Tampa.

My Antarctica is in many ways a departure for Neri, who’s best known for realistic fiction and picture-book biographies of artists. Growing up in California, he had little exposure to snow and ice. And though he fantasized about becoming an explorer or scientist like Ernest Shackleton or Jane Goodall, he never thought he’d actually follow in their footsteps. Science didn’t come naturally to him, and, as a person of color, he rarely saw scientists who looked like him.

But Neri kept his dreams alive. When he learned that the National Science Foundation offered writers and artists grants to travel to Antarctica, he seized the opportunity. Dubbing himself the “science translator,” he realized that his lack of STEM savvy could serve as an asset. As he told the program’s director, “I’m the perfect person to send to [Antarctica], because as a kid, I just didn’t get science.…I could find a way in to tell that story about different scientific endeavors going on down there. Then kids like [me] could actually understand it and be inspired.”

In Antarctica, Neri says he often felt like a child himself. Everything was thrilling: the centuries-old mummified seal carcass he saw; the bizarre undersea life, like a 30-foot-long glow-in-the-dark jellyfish; and, of course, the many penguin encounters.

Neri was reminded of his time teaching animation workshops to young people in Compton and East L.A. in the ’90s. “I’d be talking to kids who were in middle school or high school who had never seen the ocean, and they lived about a half hour from it,” he recalls. When he arranged a trip to the beach for some of those students, he was struck by their excitement. When he arrived in Antarctica, he says, “I had the same awe and wonder that those kids had at seeing the ocean.”

Channeling his inner child came in handy when speaking to scientists, many of whom had no idea how to discuss their research in ways a layperson would understand. “You have to play 6-year-old,” Neri says. He would ask the scientists questions: “‘What does that mean? Why are you doing that? What is that supposed to do?’ And after about half an hour, you finally realize, OK, you’re using these long-distance air balloons to capture stardust so you can determine the origin of the universe. And they look at you, like, Yeah, I guess that’s what we’re doing.”

Neri observed a variety of scientists in action, from astrophysicists and geochemists to biologists and paleobotanists. He quickly learned a key rule in Antarctica: “You could spend a year or two prepping for a trip, but nothing will happen as planned because the weather is so extreme.” Improvisation and flexibility were key; he remembers seeing scientists duct-taping an expensive piece of equipment to a boogie board to get it to float.

At times, Neri felt out of his element. He explains, “There’s nothing more humbling than being stuck in a remote camp…playing science trivia with a roomful of brilliant scientists.” But he later learned that those scientists were just as impressed by his work as a children’s book author. “I think they understand the power of storytelling,” he says. “Because without the story, they don’t exist. In other words, if they can’t get the word out and the public can’t understand it, then the funding dries up. There’s nobody interested in what they’re doing.”

His first version of the book was a graphic novel brimming with facts. “It was so dense with information that it just overwhelmed your brain,” he says. “You couldn’t remember anything, because you were so inundated.” Neri realized that most of all, he wanted to capture his sense of wonder, and the book evolved from a graphic novel to a heavily illustrated prose work. “What I ended up doing was taking out the answers and just leading with the questions, and it became a book about questions.” He likens his book to a magician’s trick. “You’re like, How did you do that? And then they explain it to you, and it takes all the magic away. To me, Antarctica is a place that’s filled with magic. And I wanted to leave that experience with the reader.”

Unlike most authors, Neri has involvement in all the visual and design elements of his work. He initially laid out My Antarctica in PowerPoint, incorporating photos he’d taken himself in Antarctica along with comic book illustrations of himself; the book’s artist, Wilkin, ultimately used these materials as the basis for his own art. Neri worked closely with the designer, weighing in on everything from font choices to the brightness of the colors on the page. “The way I do books is totally different from the way most people do books,” he says.

Neri may be back in a warmer climate now, but his journey has deeply affected him. “There’s a saying down there that Antarctica literally changes your DNA,” he says. “I came back and formed and am co-chair of a group called the Antarctic Artists and Writers Collective. I’m part of a group called Polar STEAM, which now facilitates that grant that I [received] and also [offers] grants for educators to go to Antarctica.…And I’ve given hundreds and hundreds of talks all over the country about Antarctica.” He adds, “For a person who had no involvement in STEM-related activities even two years prior to this, the way it’s changed my life since then has been pretty profound.”

And, as a person of color, he’s helping to make what was once an overwhelmingly white field far more inclusive. “Seeing is believing,” he says. “If you don’t see anybody like you doing this thing, then you just assume it’s not for you, especially if you’re a young person.” School visits are an important part of his work for that reason; he even did virtual visits from Antarctica. “That goes for gender as well,” he adds. “Antarctica, of course, started as a completely male world. But when I was there…maybe 65% of the people I dealt with were women.”

Above all, Neri wants young people to realize that they, too, can pursue their dreams—no matter how unlikely those dreams might seem. While it can be tempting to label ourselves—artist or science lover—he cautions against doing so. “There’s a great quote in the last book I did, a picture book about Christo. And one of the things he would say is…labels are great, but only for bottles of wine.”

“Anything is possible…if you take chances and you say yes to things,” he says. “It’s all about putting yourself out there, planting seeds, and seeing what comes up.”

Mahnaz Dar is a young readers’ editor.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story misidentified the state where Neri grew up.